Give Them Church or Give Them Death: Serve Your Time in Mass

When I think of the punishments that exist for committing a crime, I don’t count attending church as a possible consequence. Death? Sure. A fine? If it’s a misdemeanor, then probably. Years of prison rape? Well that’s a given.

But a new proposal in Bay Minette, Ala., could offer an even harsher penalty than prison rape. Operation ROC (Restore Our Community) is being pushed by the local police as a means of alternative sentencing. Instead of paying a fine and being sent to jail, offenders can choose to attend church services for a year. This would only apply to misdemeanors, which are the less serious offenses in our criminal justice system.

To enforce the required church attendance, police would monitor Sunday services to make sure you’re getting your weekly dose of Jesus and presumably not stealing from that hat that people put money in.

Surely the police are crossing a line though? Police are supposed to protect us, not monitor our souls’ status, right?

Police chief Mike Rowland said the program is mainly a cost-saving measure.

So this is less about eternal damnation and more about saving money.

Bay Minette spends $75 a day on each prisoner, which is all the motivation needed to seek alternative forms of sentencing.

Not everyone is on board with the plan, and the proposal is currently being stalled. The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) called it “unconstitutional” and asked for an immediate end to the program. Olivia Turner, Alabama’s ACLU executive director, told the Press-Register that, “It violates one basic tenet of the Constitution, namely that government can’t force participation in religious activity.”

Turner went on to say that, “When the alternative to going to church is going to jail, the so-called ‘choice’ available to offenders is no choice at all.”

“I’m wondering if the folks who designed the “Restore Our Community” program in Bay Minette, Ala., ever heard of the Constitution, let alone the First Amendment,” said Dr. David Krahl, a visiting assistant professor of criminology.

“The First Amendment to the Constitution is pretty clear on this one,” said Dr. Krahl. “The city of Bay Minette, in its attempt to implement cost-savings strategies, has given persons convicted of misdemeanors the option to pay a fine, go to jail, or go to church.
Unfortunately, this alleged cost-savings strategy is a blatant violation of the principle of separation of church and state.
It’s even more troublesome and problematic since law enforcement officers who are agents of the state will be used to monitor attendance at church which is the embodiment of religious beliefs and practices.”

Alright, but choosing between religion and jail, that’s not exactly the worst thing ever (see “slavery”). Still though, I’m not thrilled with this idea. If I have to talk to a Rabbi once a week for a year just because I stole a-

Oh wait, this program only applies to churches. 56 churches have voiced support for the proposal, but no mosques or synagogues are involved because apparently there are none in the area. The choice is between a year’s worth of Sundays in church, or a prison sentence with an attractive roommate named Nelson.

Church should not be an alternative to prison. | Bobtom84/Photobucket.com

Robert Gates, one of the 56 pastors that support the program, told a local Alabama news station, WKRG, that, “You show me somebody who falls in love with Jesus, and I’ll show you a person who won’t be a problem to society.”

Dude, I’ll show you like five people who are all about loving Jesus. Charles Manson. The KKK. The Westboro Baptist Church. Pope Pius V. John Wayne Gacy. Guess what? They all fell in love with Jesus, and they are all absolutely problems to society.

The idea of replacing prison or jail with church service is both impractical and unrealistic.

Let’s ignore that Sunday is a holy day in some religions, so if you’re not Christian you’d be going against your own religion by attending a different place of worship.

Let’s gloss over that whole “separation of church and state” thing.

Let’s even not look into just how many criminals are already religious (in case the argument is about moral fiber rather than legal rights).

Like Turner said, a choice between church and prison isn’t a choice at all. Jews, Muslims, Atheists, Buddhists, those folks with that flying dinner plate, the invisible pink unicorn, they’d all have to compromise their own beliefs, which is unacceptable.

And how did Bay Minette settle on one year? Is one year of church the spiritual equivalent of three to five years in prison? Seriously, is there some spiritual calculator I’m unaware of that can convert prison rehabilitation to church service? I hope it has a graphing function, I’d like to see the exact moment my soul stops having a chance at salvation.

Dr. Krahl summed it up well. “I don’t think that there’s a whole lot of constitutional gray area on this issue. I’m pretty sure that this is the very kind of thing that the framers of the Constitution were trying to avoid… If Bay Minette really wants to save 75 dollars a day, there are certainly other, more practical ways to accomplish that objective. Other jurisdictions have found a way to do it without trampling on well-established principle of the separation of church and state.”

To combine the two is reprehensible. This isn’t about rehabilitation or justice; this is a cost-cutting measure that will infringe on the rights granted to us in the First Amendment. And out of all the Amendments, that’s probably the worst one to breach.

Maybe I’m way off base though. In that case, don’t yell at me; just make me go to church..

Rich Solomon can be reached at richard.solomon@spartans.ut.edu

%d bloggers like this: